The use of asbestos is closely regulated, but the consequences of exposure still affect thousands of people, many of whom live here in Illinois. Asbestos-related illnesses, such as asbestosis, claim more than 1,000 lives annually, according to the American Lung Association. Asbestosis is a condition in which the lungs become permanently scarred. The resulting stiffness causes coughing, shortness of breath, chest tightness and other respiratory issues.
Although supportive treatments can alleviate these symptoms, there is no curative treatment for asbestosis. Chicagoans with this condition may permanently lose the ability to perform certain physical tasks, including work. Since the condition has no chance of improving, these people may qualify for long-term Social Security Disability benefits.
Disabling respiratory conditions
Asbestosis is a form of pneumoconiosis, which is a restrictive lung disease caused by the inhalation of damaging dusts. The Social Security Administration automatically recognizes severe cases of pneumoconiosis as disabling conditions.
To judge the severity of asbestosis and other forms of pneumoconiosis, the SSA sets thresholds on three tests of lung capacity: forced expiratory volume, forced vital capacity and diffusing capacity. Applicants with test results that meet the SSA’s criteria may qualify for benefits if they provide adequate medical documentation. Necessary forms of documentation include:
- Full medical history
- Results of past examinations
- Functional evaluation from a treating physician
- Medical imaging such as x-rays and CT scans
People who fail to meet the SSA criteria for respiratory impairments can still seek disability benefits. These applicants must provide medical documentation and prove the condition is totally disabling.
Before awarding benefits, the SSA considers whether the disability precludes any kind of gainful employment. An applicant who cannot perform his or her current job may still be found capable of gainful employment, depending on age and background. As an example, an older applicant who primarily worked as a physical laborer might be considered a poor candidate for finding other work. A younger applicant or an applicant with experience in less physically demanding fields might reasonably be expected to change occupations.
Research has established that asbestosis often becomes worse over time. Limiting exposure to asbestos does not stop the progression of the disease; many people only experience symptoms years or decades after exposure. However, even in cases where permanent disability is virtually certain, the SSA does not award permanent benefits.
If the SSA classifies a condition as “Medical Improvement Not Expected,” the applicant’s case is reviewed every 7 years. Reviews are scheduled more frequently if there is a reasonable chance of the condition improving. Given the irreversible nature of asbestosis, it should not be difficult for victims to show that the condition has not improved between reviews.